CHICKENPOX could be relegated to the history books thanks to new plans to roll out a vaccine on the NHS.
Last week, government scientific advisers said two doses of the varicella jab should be given to children at 12 and 18 months. The evidence suggests it can prevent the most severe cases, and experts say it will help “make chickenpox a problem of the past”.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, says: “For some babies, young children and even adults, chickenpox or its complications can be very serious, resulting in hospitalisation and even death. Adding the varicella vaccine to the childhood immunisation programme will dramatically reduce the number of cases in the community, leading to far fewer of those tragic, more serious cases.”
If approved by the Department of Health it will join jabs for meningitis, measles and the flu, already given to youngsters on the NHS. Medics have been warned to look out for a spike in measles in children this winter, as parents choose not to get them vaccinated. And there are concerns that we are likely to see a surge in cases of other nasty bugs affecting kids, as temperatures plunge and more people mix indoors in the run-up to Christmas.
Dr Giuseppe Aragona, GP and medical adviser for online health service Prescription Doctor, tells Sun Health: “It’s common to see an increase in respiratory infections during the winter months. Staying vigilant with preventive measures like hand hygiene and vaccination can help mitigate the impact of these viruses.”
Though in most cases they cause little more than the sniffles, parents should be alert to symptoms of illnesses, and know when it is vital to seek medical help . . .
WHILE in most cases it is nothing more than miserable, chickenpox can be life-threatening.
Dr Aragona says: “The hallmark of chickenpox is the appearance of itchy, fluid-filled blisters covering the body.
“The first sign is often a rash that develops into these characteristic blisters, causing discomfort and fever.”
The tell-tale spots start one to three weeks after infection and can appear anywhere on the body either widespread or in small areas.
There are more than 650,000 cases of chickenpox in the UK every year, with almost 400,000 of those involving visits to the GP. While most chickenpox cases in youngsters are classed as mild, some children will go on to develop complications including bacterial infections like group A strep.
In rare cases, the virus can cause swelling of the brain, serious lung inflammation and stroke, sometimes leading to death.
SYMPTOMS: An itchy, spotty rash, a high temperature, aches and pains, loss of appetite. Children can also feel a bit miserable even if they don’t have many spots.
2. Flu and common colds
THIS illness is no stranger to anyone. Dr Aragona says: “The common cold, often caused by rhinovirus, starts with a runny or stuffy nose.
“If your child has a mild cold without high fever, it’s likely a rhinovirus or common cold.
“Influenza, or flu, comes on suddenly with symptoms like high fever, body aches and fatigue. It’s distinct from a common cold due to the abrupt onset of severe symptoms.”
Both can be treated at home with good rest and over-the-counter medicines.
SYMPTOMS: Blocked or runny nose, sore throat, headaches, muscle aches, sneezing, raised temperature, pressure in ears and face, loss of taste/smell, feeling tired, a cough, lack of appetite.
3. Strep A – Scarlet Fever
Dr Aragona says when Strep A progresses to scarlet fever, it causes a “sandpaper-like rash” that tends to start on the chest and stomach. This needs treatment with antibiotics.
In rare cases, the bacteria can “invade” areas of the body where it is not normally found, such as the lungs and bloodstream, and can cause fatal infections. Last winter, the UK saw an outbreak resulting in the deaths of 516 people, including 61 children. The previous highest recorded death toll was 355 in 2017.
Cases have steadily risen since September, but appear lower than 2022, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency.
SYMPTOMS: Flu-like symptoms, sore throat, skin infection (scabs or sores), pain and swelling, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting.
Scarlet fever: The above symptoms plus a rash, flushed cheeks and a white coating on the tongue, which peels a few days later leaving the tongue red and swollen.
THE most prolific Covid variant currently circulating is Pirola, an offshoot of the Omicron strain.
While there’s no evidence the strain causes a more severe illness, it’s worth remembering as the festive season kicks off that grandparents and other vulnerable relatives might be at risk if your little one gets sick.
Dr Aragona says: “Covid-19 symptoms can vary, but often include fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
“The loss of taste and/or smell is a unique symptom that distinguishes Covid from other respiratory infections.”
SYMPTOMS: Runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, sore throat.
5. Norovirus – Gastroenteritis
CASES of the “winter vomiting bug” are expected to rise in the run-up to Christmas, UKHSA experts have warned.
It’s a particularly nasty illness, but in most cases will only last for a couple of days.
It can spread very quickly, so parents are right to dread their kids getting sick.
Dr Aragona tells Sun Health: “Norovirus leads to gastroenteritis with symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea. The rapid onset of these issues sets it apart from other bugs.”
Amy Douglas, epidemiologist at UKHSA, adds: “If you or a family member have been sick, avoid visiting hospitals and care homes, and don’t return to work or school until 48 hours after symptoms stop.”
Seek help if you or your child has been sick for more than two days, or has diarrhoea for more than seven days. Other signs to look out for include dehydration, inability to keep fluids down and in babies, fewer wet nappies and poor feeding.
SYMPTOMS: Vomiting, diarrhoea, a high temperature, headache, and aching arms and legs.
6. RSV – Bronchiolitis
RESPIRATORY syncytial virus, commonly abbreviated to RSV, can lead to bronchiolitis.
This is an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs of babies and children under the age of two.
A common chest infection, it is usually mild and can be treated at home.
However, it can become serious, particularly in babies, and lead to pneumonia.
Dr Aragona says: “RSV affects the respiratory system, causing symptoms similar to a severe cold.
“Watch for wheezing, difficulty breathing and a persistent cough, especially in infants.”
In the UK, about 30,000 babies and children under five need hospital treatment every year due to the virus, and roughly 90 die from it.
The condition spreads in the winter and so, according to the UKHSA, admissions to hospital for acute bronchiolitis and RSV are currently increasing.
SYMPTOMS: Runny nose, dry cough, fever, sore throat, sneezing and headache.
SEVERE SYMPTOMS: Wheezing, rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, poor feeding and irritability.
‘Thought it was eczema but she almost died of Strep A’
WHEN baby Nancy Shave developed a rash on her face, her mum thought it was just her eczema playing up.
But five days later, devastated Melissa Shave, 32, was told to say goodbye to her little girl who, aged just 20 months, had, in fact, developed Strep A.
Melissa, an NHS mental health nurse and mum of two, says: “She has eczema on her face so, looking back, I don’t think I looked at it the way I should have.
“I knew about Strep A but it’s one of those things you don’t think will happen.
“It was a horrible 48 hours of non-stop crying – we were in absolute shock.
“We thought we were going to lose her.”
Nancy, born in June 2021, had been unwell for two weeks before she deteriorated on Boxing Day last year.
Melissa, of Newcastle under Lyme, says: “She was slumped over on her front and her tummy was sucking in while she was breathing.”
Melissa drove the tot to hospital, refusing to wait for an ambulance.
She says: “I remember thinking, ‘Don’t stop breathing’.”
Nancy was iInitially admitted to Royal Stoke Hospital then transferred to Leicester.
By New Year’s Eve, she was in dire straits, infected with several bugs – but it was Strep A threatening her life. Melissa says: “She wasn’t getting enough oxygen and was having fits.”
Nancy, above in hospital, was given eight chest drains and put on a ventilator, which “blew a hole” in one lung.
With “not much hope” left, doctors used an ECMO machine – a device that acts as an external set of lungs – and Nancy was in hospital for two months.
Melissa, married to Laurence, 37, who works in sales, says: “We were told she might die. Luckily, she pulled through.
“She has been left quite weak. She is on long-term antibiotics and has scarring on her lungs.
“But we are hoping for a full recovery with her being so young.”
‘Daughter with chickenpox got deadly flesh-eating bug’
LEANNE Passey has backed the move for an NHS chickenpox vaccine after the virus left daughter Reign, now five, fighting for her life.
The mum, from Dudley, West Midlands, says: “If the vaccine will prevent any child from getting what Reign got, then I support it 1,000 per cent.
“I wouldn’t want any mother to go through it. It’s horrendous – you never expect it to happen to you.”
Reign came down with chickenpox in July 2022 and initially appeared fine, Leanne says.
But three days later, the mum noticed she had a temperature and was low on energy – signs of Strep A, a bacterial infection that can be a complication of chickenpox.
She also spotted a red ring around one of the sores on Reign’s side.
After taking her to A&E, Leanne, 32, fought to have her daughter seen by medics.
But she claims they tried to send the youngster home with antibiotics, saying they were “too busy”.
Reign began hallucinating and became “almost lifeless” when doctors noticed black skin around the red ring. The Strep A bacteria had triggered necrotising fasciitis, otherwise known as the “flesh-eating disease”, which can prove deadly.
Surgeons cut away the infected flesh from Reign’s side in a four-hour operation, before she was taken to intensive care, put in an induced coma and given breathing support.
She was in hospital, above, for around three weeks.
Leanne said: “I was screaming and I thought there’s a chance she was going to die.”
Now fully recovered, Reign has been left with a large scar that she may have treated in the future.
Leanne says: “Reign is here and that’s all that matters.”